Monday, 6 June 2016

Ambitions and Authenticity: Professor Grant Debates Professor Brown

Up until he brought up the gender issue in his New York Times opinion-editorial, Professor Adam Grant was making a very logical argument about the pitfalls of authenticity or, as the two learned professors are putting it, “being yourself.”  According to my understanding of the premise of his argument, being oneself may be fraught with danger.  He cites the examples of a man who decided to be authentic by: (1) verbally expressing his heart’s desires to have a sexual relationship with a colleague at work; (2) followed by similarly telling the nanny of his kids the ache in his heart to have the nanny as his mistress, (3) telling the child of a friend that that child’s pet beetle was dead rather than simply sleeping as the poor kid had innocently believed, and (4) of course the caper was the man letting his wife’s parents know that their conversation was boring.  Grant leaves the reader to envision the inglorious results of what is supposed to be the manifestations of authenticity.

Professor Grant invokes these examples in an attempt to lay bare the flaws of one being himself or herself.  Perhaps these examples capture what may be considered authenticity in some circles.  Be that as it may, it does strike me more like a case of a lack of verbal tact, if not downright insensitivity, than it is about being authentic.  Some may very well argue that the man cited by Grant actually lacked sound judgement as opposed to the cited man’s apparent peculiar manners embodying authenticity.  One can be authentic without coming across as uncouth or crass.  If the co-worker who was the object of carnal desires, likewise the nanny, the child ignorantly holding the dead pet insect in the innocence of youth, or the parents-in-law reacted in anger, responded in puzzlement or shock, it was not because of the man’s authenticity but the crudity of his delivery of his messages.  In my opinion, Grant cited what comes across as a rather poor example to put his point across.

Nonetheless, his point was fairly simple.  There are instances under which authenticity can cause more damage than it can bring forth a boon.  I disagree with Grant on the simple ground that he seems to mistake poor tact or unrefined manners for authenticity.  That is my first point of disagreement with his opinion as stated in the New York Times column that drew the fury and justifiable retort of Professor Brené Brown.

Secondly, I was shocked when he contrived to make this issue a theatre of struggles between genders based on what is seemingly very spurious supporting evidence.  He says, and I quote: “How much you aim for authenticity depends on a personality trait called self-monitoring.  If you’re a high self-monitor, you’re constantly scanning your environment for social cues and adjusting accordingly.  You hate social awkwardness and desperately want to avoid offending anyone.”  I see in this statement a euphemism for patronage, but one couched in professorially smart words.  When one is constantly scanning one’s surroundings in search of upward mobility in one’s career or social status as the primary objective, one of the many paths to that goal may easily involve the act of groveling and fawning at the feet of the would-be benefactors or patrons.  Moreover, anyone who is seen to be a stumbling block to that aim may fall victim to the ambitious ladder climber.  These two factors, resorting to as low as the deceitful stratagem of currying favour and walking over dead bodies, metaphorically speaking, are what make patronage very damaging.  Left to run amok, patronage can easily morph into a figurative cancer.

If Grant is arguing in favour of a patron-client arrangement because of its salutary results, an arrangement that may very well eschew genuine and prudent acts of authenticity, I have no choice but to state that I disagree with him.  I clearly hope that I am wrong in my understanding of his argument.  History teaches us that most, if not all, cases of recorded patronage are invariably associated with a structurally weak social dispensation whose collapse may be sudden and very precipitous and possibly just as calamitous.

What leaves me in a condition of bafflement follows what he defines to be the diametric opposite of the “personality trait called self-monitoring.”  What he calls “low self-monitor” personalities typically tend to, let me quote him verbatim here, if I may; “criticize high self-monitors as chameleons and phonies.”  Of course he points out that being conscientious, the low self-monitors get rewards which may be unfavourably disproportionate with their professional and, I presume moral investments, much unlike their polar opposites who will resort to make it to the top by any means necessary.  Is this not the very manifestation of a patronage system, if I may openly wonder?  Rewarding deceit, or inauthenticity, is doubly damaging in that it concomitantly punishes those who seek the path paved by the ethos that says that working hard and exercising due diligence will be duly rewarded.  Surely, Grant has to be conscious of this form of social injustice.  I am doubtful he brooks it.  That is number three.

Fourthly, that he apparently acquiesces to it is evident when he attempts to conflate the gender divide with the asymmetric reward arrangement of his euphemistically described patronage system.  He writes; “women are more likely to be low self-monitors than men.”  To his credit, and we ought to give credit where it is earnt, he cites the basis of his argument.  This is all well and good.  Unfortunately, the conclusions of the findings in the paper that Grant cites lack the firmness of conviction that is evident in his above-quoted statement.

In a paper published in the J Applied Psychology Volume 87(2), page 390 to page 401 (April of 2002), author Day and co-workers investigated self-monitoring personalities in a professional population sample of 23,191.  According to their construed findings, “[s]ample-weighted mean differences favoring male respondents were also noted, suggesting that the sex-related effects for self-monitoring may partially explain noted disparities between men and women at higher organizational levels (i.e., the glass ceiling).”  This is precisely how they surmise their findings.  The summary has clear caveats.  The researchers clearly see enough room to explain the noted disparities between the genders.  Simply put, there is more than an element of doubt in their conclusions much unlike the seemingly etched-in-stone statement by Grant, one interestingly based on the foregoing paper.  If Professor Brené Brown takes umbrage with this aspect of Professor Grant’s reading of the findings of Day et al., she clearly has my empathy.

I must confess that Grant and readers of my ilk may possibly be experiencing what Robert F. Brands characterized as the Rashomon Effect in his book Robert’s Rules of Innovation II.  It is in Akira Kurosawa movie, a great and very edifying movie, in which we are reminded that witnesses to a single event do not necessarily give identical accounts of the same event.  Perspective and, I presume, the state of mind do exert some considerable influence on the witness's narration of the event.

All in all, I find this exchange to be potentially help, if it can be shorn of what are ostensibly personal confrontations.  It will be a pity if such an edifying exchange ends up degenerating into a match in which two well-meaning members of a highly esteemed academic community spit venomous saliva in each other’s faces.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

A Village Bankster

“That’s him over there.”

“Him, who?” I asked my uncle as he pointed at an old man who was seated in a chair under the awning of the country store. Uncle Leo, who was my father’s brother, and I had just stopped by the Chinamhora Rural Growth Point to buy a few things on our way from the city to the village. The gentleman at whom Uncle Leo had directed my attention was at one of the mercantile shops, a collection of which made up the Growth Point.

I turned my head to take a look at the old man. Though I had seen him as we were walking to the butchery, I had not taken the least interest in him. He did not look familiar at all and I could have sworn I had never heard of him before let alone known him. The man was seated in a chair with its back leaning against the wall of the store to support the back legs because the front legs were not touching the ground. Though asleep, he was slightly rocking the chair using his leg. The warmth of the sun against the chill that was in the air and the rocking chair had lulled him into sleep. A few flies were landing on his gaping mouth and, at times, on his eyes but he would chase them of with a flick of his hand all the while without stopping the rocking of the chair or opening his eyes.

“Swinmore Mucherambeva.”

“Swinmore Mucherambeva? Are you telling me that is the same Swinmore who ---”

“Aaha, that’s him!” Uncle Leo did not have to explain further.

He looked deplorably aged. Sunken cheeks and protruding cheek bones spoke of premature aging caused by untold poverty. Even his clothes betrayed his sad state. In his heyday he dressed well and there was evidence of that. He had a tie, a shirt with a collar that was caked with grime, a tattered jacket, a pair of trousers on which a mismatching patch was sown on the left knee and shoes so worn they resembled a pair of fish that had been mummified with their mouths open. It was a pitiful sight and I was touched by this Lazarus-like character — and, in a classic case of déjà vu, it was not the first time I had known him in this poor-Lazarus condition.

I knew Swinmore Mucherambeva when I was a child. We attended the same village school and often met when herding cattle in the sections of the river valley that were not cultivated for crops. At school, he was one of the popular playground rascals who enjoyed committing a few innocuous pranks for which the school headmaster, Mr Mataka, excessively punished him. Not that most of us were safe from tasting the bitter end of Tom, the name we Christened Mr Mataka’s bamboo cane.

“Spare the rod and spoil the child,” was Headmaster Mataka’s favourite saying. He often said it on Monday mornings and when he did, we knew we were all going to get caned for one of the many transgressions that schoolboys committed.

Yes, it was the boys, always the boys who suffered Tom’s bitterness. If the caning was not punishment for a few boys who had been caught stealing mangoes from the school orchard, it was for failure to attend church services when an important dignitary was visiting, fidgeting during church service, not closing eyes during the monotonous recitation of the Lord’s Prayer which most of us never took seriously anyway, failing to clean the latrines or being reported by a girl who had been an object of uninvited and spurned harmless romantic affections.

Swinny, as we popularly called him, was often caught breaking one of these unwritten transgressions. Because he was always getting caned, Swinny eventually gave up any attempt at temperance. Avoiding trouble was not easy even for the exemplary boys let alone habitual offenders like Swinny. The more Headmaster Mataka used his legendary cane Tom, the more spoiled Swinny became until he was beyond redemption. It is possibly that Mr Mataka’s heavy handedness hardened Swinny’s nascent criminal character and eventually set him down the wrong path towards the cliffs.

At the beginning, he was a petty crook and concocted little schemes. For some unknown reason, he developed a liking for usury. He targeted the young, vulnerable, trusting and friendly schoolboys. I doubt he had ever heard of the predatory tactics of international parasites, the slithering, perennially famished and insatiable pythons like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund that preach the false gospel of fiscal discipline and austerity. Looking at him is his sorry state, I recalled his past and I could not help but feel sorry for him, despite my history with the man. As a young village schoolboy, I fell pray to his usurious schemes. Like most of his victims, I was a young, vulnerable and trusting schoolboy. One day, like a slithering serpent, he approached me at the playground as I was ready to play a game of pick-up soccer.

“Hello my little friend,” he had said as he gently patted my nicely cropped hair. I was honored to have gotten the attention of one of the older boys I had considered a hero. Here was, a boy who had constantly taken a beating from the headmaster without flinching, approaching me in a very friendly manner. He asked me for my name, which I gladly but meekly gave.

“Do you have any spare pennies?” he asked.

“I am only looking for five pennies.”

“No, I do not but I can get you some.” I seriously wanted to make him happy and giving him a few pennies was not too high a price to buy the friendship of a tough but beloved playground rascal. I was not sure I would be able to get the money right away and I told him so.

“I really need the money,” he said while wearing a very sorrowful face that reminded me of the severe caning he often got. “Try tomorrow or on Monday after the weekend.”

I felt sorry for him not because of his need for money — I had not bothered to ask him why he wanted the money. His suffering and apparent poverty had suddenly reminded me of the story of the scorned, poor and friendless Lazarus I had learnt during scripture lessons. In my sorrow for Swinny, it never even crossed my mind that I was not rich myself, unlike the rich and gluttonous man who ignored Lazarus.

“You give me until this weekend,” I promised him the five pennies. What a mistake that was. I had been forced into a trap as I quickly discovered that Monday after the weekend.

“Hey, mupfanha!” he said as he came thundering at me like an angry buffalo bull when he saw me at the play ground during class recess, “where is my money?” From a would-be benefactor, I had been transformed into a little boy

I was startled by the hostile development. He grabbed me by the collar and with his bulging eyes glowering at me as he demanded his five pennies. The poor Lazarus who had patted my head and asked for money with his head sorrowfully tilted towards his left shoulder had suddenly turned into a fierce growling dog.

“I, I, I, I tried to get ” stammering and desperately gasp for air, I attempted to tell him I had forgotten to look for the five pennies. He knew I did not have the money and so he never waited for any explanation.

He shook me and, snarling his teeth like a rabid stray hound. He demanded, “I want that money and soon! Do you hear me, mupfanha? I now want six pennies not five because you failed to bring me the five pennies you owe me.” I was too frightened to say anything. The bell to mark the end of the recess period rang and he let go off my collar as we both dashed back to the classroom. That day I was saved by the bell. This was the beginning of my miseries that I suffered at the hands of Swinny. Every time he saw me he would menacingly charge and bared his fangs at me as he demanded “his money.” It was always the same pattern and I suffered miserably.

On Tuesday, he found me at the playground again and he made the same demand: “Hey, mupfanha! Where is my money?” As had happened on Monday, I was levied an additional penny because I did not have the six pennies he claimed I owed him. On Wednesday, he found me at the playground again and he made the same declarative demand, again: “Hey, mupfanha! Where is my money?” As had happened on Monday and Tuesday, I was levied an additional penny since I did not have the money he claimed I owed him. On Thursday, he found me at the playground again and he made the same spinning chilling demand, again: “Hey, mupfanha! Where is my money?” As had happened on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I was levied an additional penny since I did not have the money he claimed I owed him. On Friday, he found me trying to sneak away from him and he made the same frightening demand, again: “Hey, mupfanha! Where is my money?” As had happened on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I was levied an additional penny since I did not have the money he claimed I owed him.

Come to think of it, it was a neat way of making money and by the end of the week he claimed I owed him ten pennies. Now, that was a shilling worth of pennies. That kind of money meant a lot in those days. I never could get the money to give him and every time he kept on adding a penny to the previous sum. Before long, I was hopelessly in debt.

The whole thing became so wearisome I stopped going to the playground lest I get caught. From a safe position and with a heavy heart, I was forced to longingly watch my friends enjoy a game of pickup soccer. At times he, Swinny, would sneak from behind and say; “Hey, mupfanha! Where is my money?”

The situation was so desperate I eventually decided to stay in the classroom to read a novel or try to learn a few mathematics problems that had confused me during one of the lessons. It is rather ironic that the terror I suffered at the hands of Swinny may have made me a more studious student than I would otherwise have been had he not left me to roam the playground unmolested. My teacher grew fond of my newly developed seriousness, well, what he thought was a sudden yearning for books and hatred for playground recess games. He paid little attention to Swinny who, whenever he did not see me at the play ground, would come hunting for me as he peeked through the window but too terrified to come in because of the presence of my class teacher.

Needless to say I became very adept at dodging my tormentor but I cursed him every time an opportunity offered. Every time I saw a lonesome dove flying, I would pick up a fistful of sand and shower it towards it and cast a spell at my tormentor. We believed then that a lone dove was a bad omen but that omen could be cast to an enemy by tossing a fistful of sand in the direction of the dove while verbally mentioning the target of that curse.

“Bad omen of the lonesome dove, spare me and go find a better home in Swinny.” Whether the spells worked or not, I do not remember. What I remember is that I never paid the money Swinny claimed I owed him. I think he decided I was not worth the trouble and went after softer targets and was probably making enough money to cover my share as is often the case with moneylenders and similar blood-sucking vampires.

After some unfruitful years in school, he decided fishing from the small village pond was not good enough. Swinny quit school and moved to the city. From a petty schoolyard leech, he graduated to a bigger crook as a pickpocket and a mugger in the dark city alleys. He became Three Fingered Swinny for his efficient wallet lifting. Unfortunately he did not go and work for a bank and what a loss that was.

The man knew how to make money. If that talent had been properly harnessed and nurtured by professional thieves, pseudonymously called bankers and insurers, he would have been a governor of the national bank or would have found a powerful position on the IMF or WB board of directors.

When I became aware of the predatory policies of the IMF and the WB, I quickly realized that the practices they used were not that significantly different from those of the playground rapscallion Swinny. Where Three Fingered Swinny preyed on weak schoolboys, the IMF preys and practices economic and financial terrorism on weak and defenseless Third World countries. Poor Argentina is a good example of that. Swinny-like, the IMF approached poor Argentina with sweet-sounding deals about the glories of private enterprise, deregulation and other monetary deviltries, which were nothing but gourds carrying deceptively sweet but highly toxic prescriptions like economic structural adjustment programs. Interestingly, the IMF directors would never encourage the governments of their home countries to adopt these energy-sapping remedies for their perennial but cleverly veiled economic maladies. Argentina was not the only vulnerable village schoolboy to be swindled by our international versions of Three Fingered Swinny, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It will not be the last one either. If only the two-headed hydra could suffer the fate that befell Three Fingered Swinny, would that not be sweet!

When I saw Three Fingered Swinny sleeping in the rocking chair as he waved the flies away, he was Lazarus in old age. I felt sorry for him and his sorry state reminded me of how my initial pity for him had gotten me in trouble. The thought of him terrorizing me when I was a small boy suddenly took me back to my years of the innocence of youth where, in hindsight, I had little to worry about.

Three-Fingered Swinny may have inadvertently altered the course of my life. I became a bookworm and I felt I owed him a debt of gratitude.

“Hello Three-Fingered Swinny,” my uncle gently shook him out of his sleep. He let the chair sit on its Six legs and noisily yawned and stretched his arms out before he exchanged greetings with Uncle Leo. They briefly chatted about the cold but dry season, the locally brewed opaque beer that they had shared in the past and other things villagers talk about.

“Who is this fellow with you?”

My uncle told him who I was and Three Fingered Swinny took a long and deliberate gaze at me. He then turned to my uncle and asked him; “Your son? I did not know you had a son. All along I thought you had nothing but daughters. You old alley cat, you.” He waved a finger at my uncle and by the naughty glisten of his eyes he thought I was my uncle’s recently discovered son from a forgotten affair, a fruit of youthful indiscretions.

“No, no Three Fingered Swinny,” moving quickly to dispel the untoward thoughts creeping into Three Fingered Swinny’s head, Uncle Leo told him; “That is my brother’s son, the one at the university.”

“Leo, you don’t say,” Three Fingered Swinny smiled and grabbed my right hand for a vigorous handshake. “I know him, remember him when he was this small,” he put his open right palm pointing his fingers skywards at the level of his waist to show my height as he remembered me when he used to badger me saying, “Hey, mupfanha! Where is my money?”

“Swinny, I owe you a few shillings from the school days,” I reminded him and we all heartily laughed. In feigned seriousness, I glowered at him and said; “Hey, mupfanha! Where is my money?” Again we all laughed.

“Hey, mupfanha! Where is my money?” he jokingly repeated the words as he grimaced at me just as he had done in those bygone years. Swinny, who had since retreated into his chair, gently slapped his knee and we all laughed again. He said,

“I tell you, those were the days.”

“I will make up for all those shillings and the accrued interest. Let us go into the bottle store and I will get you a few beers.” We went into the bottle store where I ordered a bottle of Fanta for myself and Castle Lager for Uncle Leo and Three Fingered Swinny. We enjoyed our beverages as Uncle Leo and Three Fingered Swinny smoked their cigarettes of peace chatting about the good old days. We talked about everything, except that event that had happened years ago. It had been more than a decade but time had not sufficiently cleansed that shameful event from people’s minds.

Mothers with naughty boys often reminded their misbehaving boys that they were headed the way of Three Fingered Swinny. That was powerful enough to tame the boy with the wildest spirit. No boy wanted to be like Swinny.

“You will end up like Three Fingered Swinny,” my own mother once told me when I pretended I was sick so that I did not have to go to school where the loathed Grade Four class teacher, the late Mr Karovamhuru, was in charge of assembly duties. No one wanted to end up like Three Fingered Swinny who had dropped out of school midway through Grade Four. Not even the tough-skinned Swinny could endure the excessive caning of Mr Karovamhuru. For me, the fear of meeting the disgraceful fate of Swinmore made the caning of Mr Karovamhuru tolerable.

Everyone knew about Swinny and how he committed that worst abomination of all abominations as the villagers were mourning and preparing his deceased mother’s funeral. It was one of those stories you will never forget and it happened three villages down the river valley where my grandfather had founded the village in which I spent my pre-teenage years.

After dropping out of school, Swinny had left for the city where he became a notorious wallet lifter. It was a dangerous but rewarding job especially after he ganged up with hardened city criminals. In Salisbury, they preyed on people boarding public buses. Swinny was a fast learner and I guess the years he had spent swindling little boys had prepared him well for bigger fish. He became a city slicker and dressed well for someone who had no legitimate employment.

He was similarly dressed in a nice sports jacket when fate dealt him a cruel hand. His mother, an old villager, had died and her relatives had gathered some money, $100, for her funeral. This was Rhodesia and that was a lot of money then. The money was needed to buy an ox for her burial rites. According to custom, the burial of a village elder was considered sacred and rituals that went way back in time had to be performed during the funeral. To perform some of the burial rites, internal organs of an ox were needed. Swinny’s mother did not have an ox for the ritual. A message had been relayed Swinny to gather some money from relatives. The money had been gathered and handed over to Swinny to take back to the village.

“Do not even spend a single red penny of that money,” he had been warned before he departed for the village. Everyone knew he was a thief and the sight of money brought demons of avarice flying his way.

He put the money in his jacket and left for the bus station. At the crowded station he spotted a nicely gentleman in a jacket that looked like his own. Swinny’s predatory instincts told him this gentleman was good game. As he made his way into the bus, Swinny saw what looked like the gentleman’s jacket caught between one heavy woman and the gentlemen as the crowd was jostling to get into the bus. It was at that moment that Swinny spotted a wad of money in the sports jacket of the gentle.

True to form, Swinny deftly picked the wad and shoved it into his trousers. “My luck day,” he joyfully whistled as he counted the money he had stolen from the nicely dressed gentleman. “A cool $100, you can’t beat that. That is a fortune. I will stop by the bottle store.”

When he got to the bottle store close to his village, he decided to buy a few drinks with the money he had swiped from the gentleman. “I will buy a few drinks for myself before I proceed home.” He knew everyone was waiting for him but the temptation of spending his loot was too strong for him to resist.

He got himself, a few drinks. It is often said it is easy to be benevolent with money not earnt through the sweat of one’s brow. Likewise, Swinny gladly shared with some of the village men, the typical characters who gather at the bottle store even if they have not a penny to buy even a handful of roasted peanuts. They were glad to see Swinny and some of the less shameful shed a few tear, presumably to share in Swinny’s bereavement, shaking his hand in the process. In truth, some of them wanted to get a few bottles of free beer.

“We are saddened by the death of your mother,” some of them said. “Your loss is our loss. Let your miseries and bereavement be upon our shoulders too.”

Swinny was touched by the gestures of sympathy and he bought them a lot of beer. Soon all the “looted” money was gone and he decided to go home. He was too drunk to walk without assistance. He was simply too drunk. The hangers-on carried him to his mother’s compound in a hastily made stretcher where everyone was waiting for his mother’s funeral.

“Did you bring the money for the ritual ox?” he was asked. He did not answer.

“Pour water on him,” someone suggested! Pour water on him that will sober him up enough.” They did just that but that did not help one bit. They were up against it. Without the ox, Swinny’s mother could not be given a proper burial.

“Oh, why!” exclaimed one village elder. “Search his pocket for the money.”

“There ain’t a thing in his pockets!” The man who had rifled through Swinny’s pockets said as he dejectedly threw his hands the air.

Three-Fingered Swinny had unwittingly used the funeral money to drink himself into infamy. What he had thought was stolen money from the nicely dressed gentleman turned out to be the money he had collected for his mother’s funeral. Three-Fingered Swinny had swindled himself. His mother had to be buried with offals of a goat donated by one his mother’s friends. It a very disgraceful thing, an abomination! Luckily, according to tradition practice, abominations can be cleansed away.

By custom, Three Fingered Swinny was expected to atone for his transgressions one year after his mother’s funeral. He had to collect sorghum and finger millet from the surrounding villages. Each villager gave him a little bit after which they chased him away pretending to beat him while dressing him down for disgracing his mother. This was kutanda botso – showing contrition and gaining atonement by running the gauntlet of public shaming and humiliation – a far more effective way to show penitence than going into a secluded confessional to mumble a few worthless Hail-Mary words of insincere repentance.

To this day, everyone talks about that disgraceful funeral and Three Fingered Swinny’s botso gauntlet. It is enough to send a cold shiver down the back of everyone and it kept a lot of small village boys from going down the same path that shamed Three Fingered Swinny.
© J.Masere: Written in 2001, Alvin Texas.